True Story: I Wrote A Scathing Obituary About My Mother (And I Have No Regrets)
“Marianne Theresa Johnson-Reddick born Jan 4, 1935 and died alone on Sept. 30, 2013. She is survived by her 6 of 8 children whom she spent her lifetime torturing in every way possible. While she neglected and abused her small children, she refused to allow anyone else to care or show compassion towards them. When they became adults she stalked and tortured anyone they dared to love. Everyone she met, adult or child was tortured by her cruelty and exposure to violence, criminal activity, vulgarity, and hatred of the gentle or kind human spirit.” – Reno Gazette-Journal
How could anyone write a scathing and public obituary showing such distain for a parent? For me, it was a natural “normal” process for ending and celebrating the death of someone who camouflaged themselves as a mother.
There are no words or expressions to adequately describe the sense of freedom I felt upon a phone call from my brother singing “Ding Dong, the witch is dead.”
My entire childhood and as a young adult, I felt comfort in her absence — and shame and fear in her presence. I felt absolute fear of her potential to hurl her evil against anyone who dared to express the smallest amount of love, compassion, or care upon her children. Her presence meant that we (my 6 siblings and I all approximately 12 months apart in age) would be beaten at her slightest mood change and needed to dodge all obstacles she could throw at us. As we ran for cover, she chased us, screaming her vile language and spewing her vitriol.
“I hate you ungrateful sons of bitches and despise the day you were born,” she shouted at us. When she calmed down, we quietly reappeared, crawling out of closets, from underneath beds or anywhere else we made ourselves small and invisible.
Her tantrums lasted hours because our reappearance often reignited her fury. If a baby cried she shouted, “Shut that goddamned kid up.” My older brother looked like our father, whom she also despised. Since he abandoned us, in his absence my brother experienced her fury.
“You’re just like your ‘good for nothing old man,'” she yelled. She encouraged hatred between my older brothers (they were not from the same fathers). My younger sister received multiple beatings and was often thrown outside, and she went without food because she “reminded her of the beatings she once received from our father.” Her rages of anger usually ended when the phone rang, and she was somehow able to answer with the voice of an angel, “Ace Escorts, how can I help you?”
As she sat on the edge of the seat cushion puffing her cigarette loudly, inhaling deeply, and then spewing her smoke onto us with a powerful exhale, we experienced moments of relief. As long as she talked, her cigarette butts piled into the ashtray, and she wasn’t yelling or hitting us. If the conversation went wrong, she slammed the phone down, and her sudden transformation ignited our terror again as she threw everything within her reach at us.
Eventually, she’d insist we stand in a line according to age directly in front of her. We shook in fear, anticipating her next moves would be incredibly painful. We didn’t understand death, but we were certain it would be painful and likely one of us would end up in the emergency room, or worse be drugged so she could go out on the town and “have a life.”
Sometimes her phone conversations actually ended well, and she would receive her “guests” at our house. We were ordered to clean the house, change the sheets and when anyone came to the door we were to “shut up” because we were “goddamned brats.” We slept on the kitchen floor with the doors closed. No one was allowed to leave that room under any circumstances. If we had to use the toilet, we quietly crept outside using the kitchen door to go in the back yard. If we wanted food, we ate the dry dog food under the kitchen sink. She drugged the smaller children to keep them quiet.
The next morning, one of us would sneak into her room to see if she was home. If she was, we had to remain silent. When the babies woke we had to take them outside for a walk in our wagon so as not to awaken our mother and any others. We knew if she heard a baby cry, we were going to be in big trouble.
If she was gone, we felt relief and knew she would be gone for days, and my brothers and I became the caregivers. In her absence, we never felt alone or afraid, rather we felt completely at peace and didn’t care if she ever returned. We didn’t fear anything or anyone, but her.
I was the third child, and less than 6 years old, but the oldest girl and christened “the mother of the house.” With my brothers’ help, we worked as partners to quiet, protect and sustain the life of our younger siblings. With that title came the responsibility of ensuring their continuous protection from our mother. My brothers and I were the parents, providers and protectors of our siblings. As we joined forces as partnered-parents we became our family’s moral compass which quickly entitled us to steal and cheat others to provide food and resources for our family. We protected our younger siblings at any cost.
As parent-partners, we didn’t go to school during her (I still can’t call her “mother”) absence. Instead, we spent our time finding ways to best care for our family and that often meant we took turns at a variety of criminal behaviors. Our most common practice was to pull our wagon down the street hunting for opportunities to steal empty Coke bottles to redeem for money at the grocery store. Our main targets were opened garage doors where others often stored bottles waiting to redeem them for themselves. When we had enough or were exhausted, we walked to the store where we purchased the same items: non-fat dry milk, a large bag of puffed-wheat cereal for the older kids and canned milk and karo-syrup for mixing with water for the babies’ bottles.
Eventually, we expanded our criminal behaviors by breaking into Coke machines, newspaper stands and eventually stealing wallets from women’s purses as another child distracted the potential victim. If we were caught, our mother had prepared us well. She insisted we answer no questions and only quote the 5th amendment: “I refuse to answer on the grounds I might incriminate myself.”
We rehearsed a variety of scenarios with our mother as she directed our criminal behavior and identified ways to escape nearly every scenario. As it turned out, we quoted the 5th repeatedly to the police and social workers throughout our early years. The police finally gave up and placed us into a shelter. Once there, we were expected to escape with all our siblings and instructed to reunite with our mother at whatever location we lived.
Upon our reunification, she expressed her pride and excitement for our misbehaviors and promoted our increasing capacity to do harm to others and outsmart “the pigs.” In response to her joy and acceptance, we increased our negative behaviors. Eventually, everyone became her target (neighbors, teachers, religious leaders) or anyone who dared complain to social services or the police. She used us to seek revenge by having us spray paint their houses, garage doors, key their cars and put sugar in their car’s gas tanks. She drove us to her target’s houses where we drove by several times while she gave specific roles and instructions about what to spray paint. Later that evening, we’d return once the neighborhood was asleep.
She dropped us off a few houses down, then she drove around the corner to wait for us to complete her mission. When the job was complete according to instructions, my brothers and I ran back to the car and she sped away laughing hysterically and justifying our actions; “That’ll teach those mother f—-rs” not to screw with our family” and added, “When a family prays together, they stay together.” She was so proud, and we were so eager to please her. Those were the few occasions we laughed together, and we were more than happy to receive her love, even if it only lasted a few moments.
Other days when she was angry, she’d drop us off at social services and we could hear her tell them she didn’t want us because we were ungrateful. We would listen as she described in detail how she hated us and how we ruined her life. Yet, in a few days or weeks, she wanted us back and social services returned us to her.
For years, she drugged us to make us sleep and woke us to the sounds of horrid screams of hatred and more beatings. But there was nothing worse than when she demanded sibling-to-sibling abuse for her entertainment and pleasure. At some point, she became jealous of any love our siblings shared for each other.
Soon she forced her hatred upon us, one against the other. The sibling-to-sibling abuse began as her shouts of encouragement were bestowed upon us for each act of brutality directed at each other. Those who instilled the greatest amount of abuse upon the other received her greatest praise. Those who didn’t comply with sufficient brutality became the next target. As we got older, it was harder to forget or forgive each other. The shame of what we did to each other forever haunts me.
Finally, we were permanently removed from her custody (I was 7 years old), but the abuse never stopped. This time, we were all separated into foster homes and within a year my baby brother (18 months old) was beat to death in his foster home. As a result, we were all placed back together in a children’s home with 70 children. Now, we had even more contact with our mother, and she was once again in control. As our legal parent, she had absolute power and control over our lives.
We were forced to visit with her every other weekend where we slept on the cold floor of her shabby downtown Reno office above a bar. She relocated her escort service under the facade of “Ace Secretarial Services” and “Ace Employment.” During our weekend visits, we’d spend our nights lined up according to age crying and shaking as we endured her abuse. She constantly accused us of being responsible for the death of our brother because we were caught stealing and didn’t escape with our siblings. We were good-for-nothing ungrateful brats who “murdered her baby.”
For years, we experienced ongoing physical and emotional abuse which often included her repeated suicide attempts where we found ourselves calling what we knew to be “the pigs” to save her life. Her common last words before passing out were: “If it weren’t for you sons of bitches, I would have had a life”; “I’m killing myself because of you good-for-nothing sons of bitches” and “I despise the day you were born!”
I wrote words of healing when I wrote her obituary. It’s been a long journey to become who I am today, but it meant eventually leaving all my siblings behind to avoid any contact with her. Each of us have gone different directions and most have lost contact. For myself, it took her death to no longer fear her sudden and unexpected rants of abuse. I’ve tried to “forgive and forget,” but I cannot close the memories of her foul and hateful words and many evil gestures she inflicted upon her children or anyone who tried to protect them.
Even though I am older, happier and much gentler, I’ve never felt a greater sense of peace or relief than the day my brother called me singing “Ding, dong, the witch is dead.”
I wrote an obituary and expected it to go unnoticed, just as we were as children. Instead, I discovered a sensitivity to one’s death that was not, and is not demonstrated to abused and neglected children in our society. The obituary expressed authentic and heartfelt reflections about a woman who never resembled a mother. Our story reflects only a glimpse into the types of abuses occurring daily to many children in our country. So far, our laws and resources ensure animals safer and more loving homes. Isn’t it time to end this inhumane tragedy of child abuse within our society?
We must protect and defend the innocents of our children instead of hiding them away in foster homes, or worse keeping them with their abuser. The obituary ignited a national discussion that unveiled the secrecy and shame of child abuse.
I have NO regrets; let the journey begin.
Katherine Reddick is an assistant principal where she protects the educational opportunities and safety of nearly 800 children in Odessa, Texas. As an organizational psychologist, she identifies paths for closing the achievement gap and developing leadership skills among school stakeholders.. Her dissertation focuses on how leadership behaviors and teachers’ beliefs impact the academic success of children living in poverty. Reddick’s future goals are to ensure that struggling children (whether by poverty, abuse or neglect) receive a fair chance in a society where they are not valued or protected. This piece was originally published on xoJane.